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Types of primary care physicians

What is a primary care physician?

A primary care physician is a doctor who cares for the whole patient. Primary care physicians are the center of a patient's healthcare experience, providing preventive care, diagnosing and treating diseases and conditions and making referrals to and coordinating care among specialists if needed.

There are different types of primary care physicians, including family medicine doctors, internal medicine doctors, OB-GYN doctors, and pediatricians. Family medicine doctors treat all ages, internal medicine doctors care for adults and pediatricians care for children. There are also doctors with dual primary care specialties.

Primary care doctors provide comprehensive services include:

  • Physical examinations and wellness care
  • Physicals for school, sports and camp
  • Child medical care from birth through adolescence
  • Vaccinations
  • Care for the elderly, from general healthcare to care for chronic conditions
  • Treatment and care for sports-related injuries
  • Comprehensive care for women, including routine gynecologic care, prenatal care, delivering babies and treating the symptoms of menopause
  • Treatment for colds, sore throat, fever and flu
  • Treatment for minor injuries, such as cuts, sprains, strains and severe insect bites and stings
  • Preventive and diagnostic screenings, like cholesterol tests, breast exams and prostate exams
  • Care and management for diabetes
  • Treatment for chronic diseases, like hypertension and arthritis
  • Minor surgical procedures, like stitches, biopsies and removing moles and skin lesions
  • Psychological services and individual, couples and family counseling

What is a family medicine doctor?

Family medicine is medical care for the entire family. Family medicine doctors treat all people, from birth through death and they often treat every member of a family. Like internal medicine doctors and pediatricians, family medicine doctors are primary care providers  who offer a wide variety of care and refer to and coordinate with specialists when necessary.

Because family medicine doctors care for all age brackets, children do not have to change doctors when they turn 18, and adults don’t have to move from an internal medicine doctor to a geriatric physician when they grow older. Family medicine encompasses the entire spectrum of care through the life span, and it includes:

  • Pediatrics
  • Adolescent medicine
  • Adult medicine
  • Geriatric medicine

Family medicine doctors go through at least three years of residency after graduating from medical school. Their family medicine residency includes training in obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, internal medicine, surgery, community health and medicine, psychiatry and neurology. They also train in emergency medicine, radiology, ophthalmology, otolaryngology, orthopedics and urology. They are the jack-of-all-trade of medicine, able to care for people of all ages who have a wide variety of conditions.

Training and practice in family medicine gives doctors a unique perspective. Because family medicine doctors often care for all members of a family from multiple generations, they don’t have to rely on each patient to provide a family history – they provide care for that family and have first-hand experience with that history.

What is an internal medicine doctor?

Internal medicine doctors focus on diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease in adults. They are considered primary care doctors, so they are trained to treat diseases in all body systems. All internal medicine doctors complete an internal medicine residency, which is an additional three years of training after medical school.

Some doctors choose to specialize further, getting even more training after their residency. This is called subspecializing. There are several subspecialties within internal medicine, including:


  • Allergy and immunology
  • Dermatology
  • Neurology
  • Obstetrics
  • Gynecology
  • Geriatrics
  • Cardiology
  • Rheumatology
  • Endocrinology
  • Nephrology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Psychiatry
  • Pediatrics
  • Oncology

What is a pediatrician?

Pediatricians treat children and adolescents exclusively. They had general medical training in internal medicine, but their residency was focused on children. After their residency, they had to pass a pediatric board exam before they could legally practice. They are experts in all aspects of child development.

Some benefits of pediatricians are:

  • They specialize in caring for children. It’s what they do all day, every day.
  • They are typically quite skilled at communicating and engaging with children.
  • They tend to have experience with child-specific health concerns, including rare congenital conditions.

What is an OB-GYN doctor?

While all primary care providers are trained in women’s health and most can perform routine annual exams, Pap tests, and other care specific to women, OB-GYNs specialize in this area exclusively. They can treat all conditions related to the female reproductive system including hormonal problems, urinary incontinence, pelvic floor disorder, sexually transmitted diseases and more.

OBGYNs can perform a wider array of gynecologic procedures, such as an endometrial biopsy, D&C, cryosurgery to treat pre-cancerous cervical conditions and other disorders.

They can also counsel patients about different birth control options, such as IUDs, birth control pills, vaginal rings, diaphragms, injections, implants, and more, and they can prescribe the medications or perform procedures to implant longer-acting options. Similarly, they can help diagnose and treat infertility problems.

Helping women prepare their bodies for pregnancy and childbirth and providing care for women (and their unborn babies) throughout pregnancy and during the post-partum period are also services commonly offered by a dedicated OB-GYN. They can treat pregnancy-related conditions and complications of pregnancy. They can help women through labor and delivery and can deliver babies.